The Song of Deborah and the Rise of Israel

Judges 5 contains what is known as the Song of Deborah, an archaic poem describing an ancient battle between Israelites and Megiddo/Taanach. There’s no way to know exactly when the poem was committed to writing, but it likely existed first as an oral tradition, and that oral tradition likely dated to the tenth century BCE or earlier. Megiddo was Israelite territory after the tenth century, and the poem seems to locate the tribe of Dan close to the coast, which would date them to Iron I. The name Sisera has also been suggested to be related to an ancient nickname for Ramses II, Ssy-r’. This would date the events to around the thirteenth century BCE. Whatever the exact date, it appears quite early, which makes it a uniquely early witness to the development of the Israelite ethnos.

The poem lists tribes associated with the worship of the deity Yhwh who were expected to answer a call to arms. Six tribes answered the call: Ephraim, Benjamin, Makir (Manasseh; cf. Num 26:29), Zebulun, Issachar, and Naphtali. Four tribes familiar to us do not: Reuben, Gilead (likely representing Gad), Dan, and Asher. A tribe or location called Meroz is also cursed in v. 23 for neglecting the call. Interestingly, the southern tribes of Simeon and Judah are entirely absent. Were they warring with the other Israelite tribes, or had they not yet been associated with Yhwh and the Israelite ethnos? Archaeological data show Judah was the last region associated with the Israelite state to develop, which makes it likely the poem describes a situation predating the monarchy as well as Judah’s incorporation with Israel. Keep in mind that that incorporation originated with David’s reign and did not last beyond it. In other words, Judah’s inclusion in the Israelite state was not the natural state of affairs. Judah’s status as the capital let the monarchy appropriate aspects of Israelite cult and identity that it would assert ever after, but the northern kingdom, the kingdom of Israel, always wanted to function on its own.

The situation described in the Song of Deborah may be the best description we have of Israel’s early form. We have ten or eleven tribes linked by worship of the same deity and cooperation in times of war. In other words, the people of Israel comprised a federation of ten or eleven tribes occupying the central hill country of Canaan. At some point these tribes coalesced into a nation and were almost immediately annexed by Judah. Many scholars think conflict with the Philistines was the catalyst for that process. Allying with Judah was the solution to the ever present Philistine problem, but it meant the appropriation and manipulation of their heritage. Northern traditions were taken over wholesale by Judah and incorporated into a developing charter myth to which they were largely antagonistic. Hosea, for instance, belittles Jacob and the patriarchal origins myth, instead praising Moses and what must have been an early and basic version of the exodus tradition. That tradition would have highlighted the Midianite/Kenite/Edomite origins of Yhwh and the Israelite cult.


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